LAS VEGAS (AP) — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were locked in a tight race Saturday in Nevada’s Democratic caucuses as thousands of voters packed schools, casinos and hotels as the presidential campaign shifted to contests in more diverse states across the country.
Though Clinton installed staff on the ground last spring, Sanders’ message of combating income inequality appeared to resonate in a state where many voters are still struggling to rebound after years of double-digit unemployment.
Entrance polls of voters found that a third said the economy was their major concern, while a quarter cited income inequality — the centerpiece of the Sanders’ campaign.
“If Ronald Reagan can smash the American Dream from right field, then Bernie can build it back up from left field,” said Dale Quale, a 60-year-old unemployed former slot machine technician who estimated that he had made 800 phones calls for the Vermont senator before the caucus.
Underscoring the close race, women, college-educated, nonwhites and those living in union households favored Clinton while Sanders fared best with men, voters under 45 and those less affluent. Whites were split between the two candidates. Sanders did well with self-identified independents and two-thirds of those participating in a caucus for the first time.
The state party said more than 31,000 Nevadans pre-registered online. Mary Moore, a 68-year-old retiree, was firmly backing Clinton.
“I’ve seen Hillary do things for the Mexicans, I’ve seen her do things for the blacks, the whites, all of them,” said Moore, who is black.
A Sanders victory would undercut one of Clinton’s major campaign arguments: that the Vermont senator largely appeals to white liberals, a relatively narrow swath of the Democratic Party. Eight years ago, minorities comprised one-third of Democratic caucus-goers, a percentage that’s far more representative of the country as a whole than mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire.
The candidates spent their final hours before the caucuses furiously trying to drive up turnout among their supporters. In the first hours of voting, the race appeared close, according to surveys of caucus-goers as they arrived.
Clinton almost crossed paths with Sanders at Harrah’s casino Saturday morning less than an hour before the caucuses began. Sanders slipped into an employee cafeteria to shake hands with workers. About 10 minutes later, Clinton came in to do the same.
“I need your help this morning in the showroom,” she told workers, who get two hours off work to caucus at sites in the casino. “Spread the word — paid time off!”
Sanders started his caucus day at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand casino, shaking hands with culinary workers. He declined to predict victory.
“If there’s a large turnout, I think we’re going to do just fine,’ Sanders told reporters as workers mobbed him. “If it’s a low turnout that may be another story.”
Significant spending by Sanders on paid media and staff helped his campaign make inroads into the Latino and African-American communities, which make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate in the state.
At stake are 35 delegates. In 2008, Clinton won the popular vote in the state, but then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama picked up one more delegate, due to the quirky nature of the caucuses.
In recent months, Sanders has caught up: He’s spent slightly more than Clinton on television and radio ads in the state, investing $4 million to her $3.6 million, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media’s CMAG, and has more staff on the ground.
After Nevada, the primary moves into South Carolina, which votes Feb. 27.
The polling survey was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research.